We take a look at the relative performances of the three competing nations in the Celtic League after four rounds of the competition.
Many people expected that, with the consolidation of the Welsh teams from five to four, and the consequent concentration of the best talent that it created, there would be a hierarchy of participating nations in this year’s Celtic League.
The Scots, with budgets being cut by their union and a dearth of penetrating backs, were expected to struggle, as they did last year. The best positioned to make a challenge being Edinburgh, fresh from achieving the Heineken Cup quarter-finals last year.
The Irish, with the national management team having first call on the top players, were expected to be competitive but, with the exception of Ulster, not challenge for the title.
All of which would leave the Welsh sides, including champions Llanelli, to fight it out for the championship.
So how is this theory bearing up, after four rounds of the league? Well, it’s difficult to make conclusive assertions, as two of the four weekends have been taken up with ‘derby’ fixtures between ‘same nation’ sides. However, it is interesting at this stage to look at the ‘international’ fixtures so far.
The strength of the Welsh is underpinned by their record so far. Their sides have played seven fixtures against teams from Ireland and Scotland. Of these, they have won six and drawn one. The drawn match was the 6-6 affair between Leinster and Cardiff at Donnybrook, in which both sides were poor, but Leinster were glad of the draw. Against Irish teams, the Welsh have played four, won three, drawn one. Against Scotland they have played three, won three.
The Irish teams have played seven against ‘international’ opponents, of which they have won three, lost three and drawn one. As shown above, though, the three defeats have been to Welsh teams, and consequently the three wins have been against Scottish sides.
The Scots have played six and lost six against Welsh and Irish sides.
All of which tends to suggest that the prognostications of the pundits prior to the League were pretty much spot on in terms of the relative strength of the nations.
However, over the course of the entire campaign, with the return of the international squad buttressing the Irish provinces, it is by no means certain that the Irish sides will not rein in the Welsh.
In that regard, the match next week between The Newport/Gwent Dragons and Leinster at Rodney Parade will be a fascinating barometer as to the state of the nations.
For where the pundits have got it wrong (so far) is in assessing the likely ‘best of class’ for each of the three nations. Llanelli, as reigning champions, were touted as the favourites but have lost convincingly to both The Ospreys and The Dragons to date. Indeed it is The Ospreys that have been the dominant force thus far.
In Ireland, Leinster, expected to be the side most affected by the loss of their international squad contingent, have performed best of the Irish. One of only two unbeaten sides to date, they have grown with each outing, to the point that Declan Kidney’s most difficult challenge is keeping harmony in a squad that now appears to be bursting with competition and options in all areas. The problem area of outhalf, with the imminent arrival of David Holwell from the Wellington Hurricanes, now boasts a welter of options given the return of Felipe Contepomi plus the form of Brian O’Meara and David McAllister.
Even in Scotland, the best performers have been Glasgow, as the more fancied Edinburgh have disappointed. However, all of their points have been earned against fellow Scots, indicating the problems the Scots face.
Another useful barometer of the relative standing of the Welsh and Irish sides will be next week’s meeting of Munster and Llanelli, both standard bearers for their countries in the Heineken Cup. Llanelli have been accused of being a side that is ageing together and are now past it. Next week will give them the chance to disprove that. But they will be up against a Munster side that will have been stewing on their defeat to Leinster for a fortnight. A first win in the tournament is overdue for Alan Gaffney’s troupe, but Stradey Park will be no place for the faint-hearted next Sunday.
Connacht can maintain the record of the Irish against the hapless Scots when they host The Borders on Saturday. The Westerners have been unlucky to play teams on the rebound from defeats the past two rounds. The same will be true next week when they play The Borders, but they should have too much forward firepower for the weakest of the Scots sides.
Ulster find themselves idle next week, kicking their heels (and perhaps other body parts) when they would far rather the opportunity to erase their performance against The Ospreys. They play The Dragons at Ravenhill the following Friday in another match that may swing the pendulum towards the Irish.
But on the evidence to date, the challenge facing the Irish in overcoming the Welsh challenge over the coming couple of weeks is a considerable one.